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Last week, we talked about robotaxis and the hardships self-driving companies are hitting when it comes to getting autonomous cars on the road. Even with the growing popularity for self-driving vehicles and robotaxis like the Alphabet Inc. Waymo, Aurora Innovation delivery trucks, and the Niro Plus robotaxi from the Kia Corp, there is still a lot of confusion on what autonomy means, and the varying levels of it. Many consumers are wary about self-driving vehicles, not wanting to give up control, but what exactly do they think those advanced automatic safety features are? Some would be surprised to know autonomy has become a part of the modern car right under our noses. The difference is whether or not we’re in control behind the wheel. It all depends on what level of autonomy the vehicle is operating.
Level 0 Autonomy
Go back a decade or so, and this is what we have. No advanced safety features, no automatic braking or lane keep assist. It’s all on the driver to be responsible. Pretty simple, and back when smartphones and digital notifications weren’t the norm, most drivers could handle this. Everything is manual.
Level 1 Autonomy
Level 1 doesn’t take that large of a step up. Level 1 is more about driver assistance, not replacing the driver or taking responsibility for the driver. A prime example is cruise control. Drivers can set the speed they would like for the vehicle to coast when driving on the highway, but the car won’t slow down if the speed limit changes, or if there is a safety hazard up ahead. That responsibility is still on the driver.
Level 2 Autonomy
This is where things like advanced and automatic safety systems start to creep up, but the driver is still in control. Known as “advanced driver assistance systems”, features that keep the driver aware of their surroundings can be classified as Level 2 autonomy. That chime you hear when someone is creeping into your blind spot? The beep you hear when drifting out of lane or getting too close to the vehicle in front of you, or behind you with parking assist systems? Those are the most basic kinds of driver assistance, and would count as level 2. Some of these systems veer towards Level 2.5 where they can control steering and accelerating/decelerating, such as Lane Keep Assist or Automatic Emergency Braking, but the driver is still in control after the fact.
Level 3 Autonomy
This is where the jump from manual driving and automation gets larger. Full collision warning systems that go beyond a chime and bring the car to a stop to mitigate a collision, lane keep assist systems that try to pull the vehicle back into the middle of the lane, and adaptive cruise control that changes the speed based on the environment the vehicle is driving in are all Level 3. Highway driving assist systems are also popping up, taking some of the stress off of the driver to navigate the busy highway. A driver still needs to be behind the wheel, in case of complications, but the car basically takes over the steering, keeping a safe distance from other drivers and in lane, and manages speed without driver intervention. This is the most popular level of autonomy we’re heading into, popping up in many vehicles. Highway Driving Pilot in the Kia EV9 is the best example of this.
Level 4 Autonomy
Here is where things get tricky. In controlled environments, the driver is not necessary, but has the option to drive manually. Otherwise, the vehicle can function in a self-driving mode in rural areas and even in cities where robotaxis already operate. Typically, this means low-speed traffic areas, about 30 mph or less. Known as geo-fencing, car technology can detect what area the vehicle is in, and if autonomy is allowed – much like the geo-fencing parental features can use to keep teen drivers from skipping class and driving to the beach. This kind of autonomy may not be ready for the highway, where speed can drastically change. As infrastructure or technology like vehicle-to-everything (V2X) evolves, Level 4 may be more widely used and integrated into vehicles.
Level 5 Autonomy
This is the pinnacle of self-driving technology. No driver is needed, not even the driver’s attention. These types of cars may not even have a steering wheel or acceleration/brake pedal. Everything is controlled automatically by an onboard computer or operating system in the car. This is where many autonomous driving startups and companies are hitting a roadblock. Even if they can manage level 4 autonomy without any trouble, they still don’t function safely enough to be allowed on city streets or the highway.
Hopefully this clears things up for autonomy and self-driving car technology. As always, you can keep up with upcoming car technology when you follow along with us on NowCar social media.